Spirited Away

08.04.12

Art in the Age: Ex-Ad Man Steven Grasse’s Wonderfully Weird Spirits

Jace Lacob talks to Hendrick’s Gin creator and former ad man Steven Grasse—once called “the Don Draper of outrageousness”—about his eclectic spirits venture, Art in the Age.

The shelves of local liquor stores are piled high with concoctions such as bubble gum vodkas and root beer schnapps, sickly sweet libations that are not only synthetically flavored but also reminiscent of a candy store.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s  Art in the Age, a Philadelphia-based spirits company that has carved out a name for itself as makers of what founder Steven Grasse—an ex-ad man once deemed “the Don Draper of outrageousness”—calls “historically based artisanal crafted spirits, each one completely different.”

In just a matter of a few years, Art in the Age has dominated that nascent spirits category with its sophisticated and original products, such as ROOT, SNAP, and Rhubarb Tea (formerly known as RHUBY). Each of the spirits has its origins in the Colonial and Federalist-era past, recapturing a piece of American history in a bottle. ROOT is based on “root tea,” a folk recipe from the 1700s and precursor to root beer; SNAP recalls a Pennsylvania Dutch Lebkuchen (ginger snap); Rhubarb Tea is based on an alcoholic rhubarb tea recipe favored by Benjamin Franklin. The company’s latest offering, SAGE, is now on shelves.

In keeping with the company’s ethos, SAGE is a “garden gin” redolent of sage, rosemary, lavender, and fennel, and is inspired by avid horticulturist Thomas Jefferson and Bernard McMahon, Jefferson’s botanical advisor. McMahon, the author of the 1813 book Flora Americae Septentrionalis, was tasked by Jefferson with chronicling the 130 different plants discovered by Lewis and Clark on their fabled exposition. With SAGE, Art in the Age has concocted a spirit that uses the botanicals that link Jefferson, McMahon, and Lewis and Clark. Like all of their products, it transports the drinker to a pre-industrial time in our history, recalling “an earlier, more verdant world, when nature was more abundant and adventures more frequent.”

The 47-year-old Grasse, Art in the Age’s founder, is passionate about reconnecting to pre-industrial times. (The company’s name is derived from Walter Benjamin’s landmark 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”) “It’s a personal interest of mine,” said Grasse, speaking to The Daily Beast. “I’m obsessed with before the world turned to shit, pre-industrial era—which started in 1840—and the stories of America before industrialization happened.”

“When we set out to start Art in the Age, we challenged ourselves,” he said. “I wanted to create the weirdest thing I could think of and put it in the simplest bottle possible and see if I could make that work. But I also wanted to create something that was really interesting and different and mix in my personal interest in history.”

Grasse likens Art in the Age to other organic brands with strong philosophies. “I want to be like the Newman’s Own of spirits,” he said. All of the spirits are certified organic, though Grasse is quick to admit that “certified organic could be a gimmick” if used improperly. “A lot of brands exploit that… but I don’t think anyone really gives a shit about it,” he said. “I do it because I want it to be historically accurate. Everything was organic back then.”

As for the spirits themselves, they are deeply layered and complex, subtle brews that provide a sophisticated base for a cocktail rather than a splash of intense flavor. ROOT exudes an essence of birch bark, wintergreen, spearmint, cinnamon, and all spice; it is far cry from the flatness of a synthetic root beer-flavored vodka. SNAP overflows with blackstrap molasses and ginger, as well as spices. RHUBY is a heady blend of rhubarb, beets, carrots, and cardamom. SAGE is a garden’s worth of herbs and botanicals. At 80 proof, they’re potent and patently unique. In April, Grasse unveiled Spodee, a wine fortified with high proof moonshine that tastes strongly, and surprisingly, of chocolate. They’re strange and wonderful, oddball spirits that reflect the nature of their creator.

“I want to be the Spike Jonze of booze,” Grasse said. “Or even John Sayles.”

Grasse is a mad scientist, visionary, and iconoclast. In 1989, he founded his own advertising agency, Gyro Worldwide (later renamed Quaker City Mercantile), and produced work for such clients as Camel and Puma, developing a reputation for a madcap guerilla marketing style that fit perfectly into the punk rock era. One campaign, for a Philadelphia clothing store called Zipperhead, used images of serial killers like Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer, and a tagline that read, “Go a little crazy now instead of a lot crazy later.” That campaign landed Grasse in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, but lost the company quite a number of clients, even as it positioned them on a national scale.

“I was not the wild child of advertising,” said Grasse, “but the insane person in advertising.”

Beginning in 1999, with his brother, Peter, Grasse produced a series of short films called Bikini Bandits—in which bikini-clad strippers with guns rob convenience stores—and turned down a shot at Hollywood and a feature film. A Studio Canal Plus feature based on the franchise collapsed and never made it to the screen. “Fuck Hollywood” is a typical Grasse refrain, as is “I don’t give a shit about Hollywood.”

Grasse also created Sailor Jerry Rum, a best-selling spiced rum that’s based around the cult surrounding the late WWII American tattoo artist Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins (“It’s a mix of tattoo culture, rock ‘n roll, and bikers,” said Grasse), and crafted the now-ubiquitous Hendrick’s Gin as a work-for-hire for William Grant & Sons, the makers of Glenfiddich whiskey. He also wrote a controversial 2007 book entitled The Evil Empire: 101 Ways That England Ruined the World, which the Daily Mail decried as “outrageous.”

Lest you think that Grasse is resting on his laurels, last year he took Art in the Age in another direction, founding the Tamworth Lyceum, a Tamworth, New Hampshire-based mercantile store, coffee shop, and lyceum, which hosts lectures, art exhibitions, and workshops. And the company is breaking ground on a distillery in September, to be located in an old inn down the street from the lyceum.

“With this, we’re taking the Art in the Age philosophy a step further,” said Grasse. “The transcendentalists—Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott—believed that we needed to return to a spiritual world and to nature… They were heeding the warning that we were going to destroy this planet with the coming age of industrialization and that’s what happened. So we’re going back even further, and being even more obsessive about this in our next venture.”

Grasse’s plans for the company’s distillery involve creating a personal laboratory for more experimental creations and he also plans to make perfume, which Grasse notes is how distilleries were discovered, “through alchemy,” in the first place.

“I want to see what happens when I distill wild mushrooms that I foraged in the park,” said Grasse. “I want to go crazy and see what’s possible. I’m going to be the mad scientist of this business and explore where it could go… I look at Art in the Age as a real jumping off point. We can get weird and it works. So let’s get weirder and see what happens.”